10 Classic and contemporary textbook features you may not be thinking about…but should

highlighted textbookDuring his 2019 TAA Textbook & Academic Authoring Conference presentation, “Textbook Features You May Not Be Thinking About… But Should!”, veteran textbook author Kevin Patton shared details about both classic – not “old” – and contemporary textbook features for consideration when designing a learning experience for your readers.

Starting with an exploration of the textbook as part of a learning experience for the student, Patton advised looking at the pain points, how they can be addressed, and what already works in the classroom. From there, it’s a matter of finding the right design elements to deliver the content in a meaningful way for the students using your book. Below are ten features for consideration.

Classic features

Classic features of textbooks are “time-tested, proven features” that are “familiar”, “good”, and “still work”. However, it’s sometimes helpful to consider the best way to use these features with your subject matter and audience.

For example, Patton notes that chapter objectives in the book can often be confusing to students, especially when teachers don’t cover all of them. He advises teachers that “a textbook shouldn’t fit like a glove, but rather fit more like a mitten where there’s wiggle room for the fingers”. For this reason, he posts chapter objectives for his book in the online instructor resources instead of directly in the book to allow instructors an easy way to copy and paste what fits their course and teaching efforts. Once incorporated into the syllabus, the students have chapter objectives that they really can use to focus their learning of the material.

Patton also suggests looking at what different people do in different disciplines to see what can be leveraged for use in your own discipline. The key is to think about how you can apply “a fresh look on a classic idea”. The same, he says, is true of these other classic textbook features:

  • Review questions
  • Problems
  • Vocabulary lists
  • Chapter outlines
  • Chapter summaries

expanded word listAn example of how Patton applies a fresh look to a classic feature is with expanded word lists. An extension of the classic vocabulary list, his approach not only includes all of the key terms, but he adds detail on the pronunciation and breakdown of the vocabulary words for greater understanding, particularly in his field of anatomy and physiology.

Another way to make classic features more effective, Patton suggests. is adding embedded directions to things like review questions and chapter summaries which can reference audio files or other resources to reinforce the learning process for the material.

Contemporary features

Contemporary features, according to Patton, “may not have been around for a long time, but a lot of people are using them”. Below are several contemporary features you may want to consider incorporating with your textbook.

Adaptive learning platforms

Although not in the textbook, adaptive learning platforms are often packaged with the textbook. Patton says that due to the cost factor, this is something to talk with your publisher about as it is not a good fit for every textbook, but there may be less expensive options available.

He suggests to “start out with the idea of adaptive learning platforms and maybe you can get to the point of something more workable and more affordable for a particular book and a particular market”.

Digital book features

Even though Patton wonders “how close we are to being an all-digital textbook world” and is of the opinion that “it’s never going to happen”, he does share benefits that he has experienced with the digital versions of textbooks. Specifically, the notetaking and highlighting features embedded into the digital textbooks are helpful and those highlights and notes can be shared with others.

As an instructor, Patton will make notes in the digital textbook used for the courses he teaches and then share those notes with his students. He has considered adding notes from the author’s perspective in his own textbooks as well.

Case studies

According to Patton, “we’re seeing more and more case studies being incorporated into books because learning science is telling us that if we start with some application so that students can see why it’s important we’re learning all that information, and then work through it like a puzzle, then it kind of gamifies things.” Gamification, Patton notes, is also a contemporary strategy of learning design.

Blogs and podcasts

In his textbooks, Patton uses podcast technology to produce “audio chapter summaries”. Applying contemporary approaches to a classic feature (chapter summaries), students can download the audio files from student resources on the textbook website.

See the entire presentation recording in the TAA Presentations on Demand library.


Eric Schmieder

Eric Schmieder is the Membership Marketing Manager for TAA. He has taught computer technology concepts to curriculum, continuing education, and corporate training students since 2001. A lifelong learner, teacher, and textbook author, Eric seeks to use technology in ways that improve results in his daily processes and in the lives of those he serves. His latest textbook, Web, Database, and Programming: A foundational approach to data-driven application development using HTML, CSS, JavaScript, jQuery, MySQL, and PHP, First Edition, is available now through Sentia Publishing.